Writing one of those paragraphs that defines everything about you, all the while trying not to make it sound like you are promoting yourself—when that’s really what you’re doing—is hard. That’s what James was trying to do. So I started firing off questions via text message. I was stuck at home in an East Coast snowstorm, he was up in Aspen photographing a wedding. This is how this interview came about.
When I look at your site I see weddings but I’m thinking about photography. Style. Art. Fashion. Is that something you bring to the table or is it your clients?
I definitely gravitate towards those things with or without a camera in my hand. At a wedding it’s a collaboration, the couples personalities and styles are really stamped on everything and it’s my job to photograph it in a way that is true to their vision, but they have also hired me to see their wedding through my eyes, with my world view. I’m after what is beautiful at a wedding; and you know, it’s there in so many different ways. I have always felt that simplicity is beautiful, so that really is my starting point, to break things down into simple and separate parts. It’s little things, the way ribbon falls down the back of a dress, a little girls eye lashes, the way the bride looks at her dad, the way a woman leans into a man she is in love with. Maybe that’s cheesy but it’s really how I look at it, how can I turn these simple things into art…I guess it works for me.
What was the first photograph you saw that drew you to photography?
That’s a difficult question because I really studied a lot of the great photographers before I really ever started to shoot myself, I had this collection of books from photographers like Cartier-Bresson, Eggleston, Evans, Brassai. The one image though that stands out, I would say it is an image by Robert Doisneau of a couple kissing in Paris. Maybe it stands out because it’s what I grew up seeing everywhere on posters and prints, was it on a hallmark card? It definitely informed the way I shoot. It looks like he photographed it while sitting having a coffee, the image is so candid but is fashionable and stylized in it’s way. I have a similar photograph that I found in an antique store and had framed and is hanging in my house. Both photographs are captures of people just being in the moment and are infused with a real sense of style. I guess it’s these types of moments that draws me to continue to make photographs.
You photographed your grandparents recently. Can you talk a little about that. Are they proud of you?
It’s interesting, because I’m sure they were proud of me, but I don’t think they really understood what I do until I photographed them. But for me, and I think them, it was a really special time. I spent maybe 4 hours taking their portraits and just shooting the different rooms in their house. My grandma’s doll collection, the old yellow “davenport” that they have had since before I was born, my grandpa’s tools, the
orchard…but it was the stories. That was the best part. They started talking to me and telling me stories, some that I had heard a hundred times and some that I had never heard, I found myself just holding my camera and listening, you know really listening like I never had before. Since then, I’ve been encouraging everyone to set up a photo shoot of their grandparents, even if it’s just with a point and shoot camera. Photograph the stuff that is important to them, it’s an amazing experience.
Wedding photography at the end of the day is a business, but you make it look like you are having fun. Everyone looks like they are having a good time?
Well it is a wedding so it’s supposed to be a happy, joyous time. Of course there is always a little stress involved, especially for the bride and groom. My personality though is different than most, I really don’t get stressed out…hardly ever. I think having that presence around people who are stressed or starting to get stressed really puts them at ease. Because a photographer has so much experience at weddings, I think people really look to them as a sort of barometer for how things are going so it’s important to be happy and calm and I think that is reflected in my photos. I like to say that if you are in love and you know you will be married at the end of the day to this amazing person, than everything else that happens is just part of the experience. And that will ultimately be a great memory.
You fly fish, cut your own Christmas trees in the woods and ride motorcycles. Earlier you told me you just changed your oil pan and starter in your car. Is it hard to shut that part off when you are holding a $20,000 wedding dress with intricate details?
Ha. That makes me laugh you know, because it’s not really something I ever think about. I do a lot of different things but I guess it’s that versatility that makes me good at what I do. I feel comfortable in pretty much any situation. I think that all of my interests and experiences allow me to relate to people and find something in common with a lot of different people. Over the years I’ve developed a taste for finer things; probably influenced by my clients. The reality is though that I grew up in Washington state, which is where my heart still lives. I love the outdoors, I’m happiest when outside fishing or biking, golfing, rafting, riding motorcycles. Inside my head, there a strange alchemy of all the things I love, from fashion to fish.
You built a bookcase for your photo books. Was it because most bookcases are too weak?
[laughs] No actually it’s because I just like trying new things. I saw a bookcase at Room & Board, studied it for awhile and thought, I can make that. That’s one thing about me, I like to do stuff, to be busy, to try new things. So I made this book shelf out of rough lumber from Home Depot, I spent a long time sanding it down getting it to feel the way I wanted it to feel and it’s still nowhere near the quality of the Room & Board shelving but it’s in my office and it works well, I need better tools though.
You told me once about growing up in the northwest country woods, how your family spent three years living in a trailer. In the winter you had ice on the interior walls?
Yeah, I grew up in Washington State. My family moved there when I was 4 or 5 and we lived in this tiny trailer while my dad was building our house. We were way up north and the winters were so cold and the wall next to my bed used to get this sheet of ice on it. The only heaters we had were the propane stove we used for cooking and a small space heater. But I really value my formative years growing up in the woods. I spent entire days just roaming through empty woods, climbing trees as high as I could go without the branches starting to break. I read a lot then too. I remember spending days in the woods, or in a book. It was a pretty simple life. It somehow grounded me for life, made me understand the beauty in simplicity and the people around you. That time in my life was my parents greatest gift to me.
Some of the weddings you have Jason Wells with you, he photographed the Bellagio hotel, and recently spent time in Haiti AFTER THE EARTHQUAKE. You seem to work with people you’ve known for a long time.
Jason was my roommate in college. He is one of those guys that has a real gift for telling story with any medium he uses. I’m always saying that Jason is the “master of the moment” because he really stays present, in tune with people and the stories they are telling by just being. It’s why he can be amazing shooting the creation of the Bellagio and then go to Haiti and cover these heart wrenching stories of disaster, it really is a gift. He is one of my closest friends and I trust him. Trust is a big thing for me; especially when I’m photographing a wedding. There aren’t any do-overs or re-shoots with a wedding, you only get one opportunity. I think that is why it’s important to me to work with people I’ve known for a long time, that and knowing someone’s work ethic, I have to know they are going to work as hard as I am to get the images that will work.
You went to Italy last year. Rented a house with friends. I’ve seen your photos. Did it feel like work to take photos in Italy. Do you ever find yourself not taking photos cause you’re working almost every weekend?
When I’m traveling, my favorite way to experience a city is to get up early and just wander the streets aimlessly with my camera. It is what I was meant to do really. I love having a camera in my hand, because it really breaks down barriers with people. I’m a people person by nature and so it’s one more way for me to experience people and a culture. That’s one part of it, the other part is my love affair with light and shadow. I remember being in Montepulciano and this beautiful light was streaming down an alley, I sat and watched the shadows move as the sun started to fall, mesmerized, than this Italian gentleman, he was really quite old, walking with a cane came through a door in the alley, turned and walked into the light and that was when I released the shutter. That in my mind is the best way to make a photo, wait for it to make itself. I love to look for beautiful light which is why it’s so great to just explore alone because most people just don’t understand it. Even my wife is always teasing me by saying “oh, look at the light over there…isn’t it glorious”…her own little mockumentary of me, but it’s what I love! So no, shooting in Italy was happiness in it’s purest form. At home if I’ve had a stint of a lot of shooting I will sometimes just leave the gear in the closet and shoot the boys with my iPhone For me shooting with the iPhone is really akin to shooting film because it’s small and people forget it’s there, but I still have to be intentional, really think through composition and how light and shadow is going to effect the image But, I never tire of making pictures…it’s who I am.
You worked with Alex Abercrombie early on. What did you learn with her?
I really owe everything I get to do now to Alex. I was always a student of photography, but I never really considered it more than a hobby until Alex. She was my mentor, she taught me a lot about the business. She used to call me on the phone and pretend to be a potential client just so I could get the practice of talking to a client. She was really the one that nudged me forward and was always encouraging. I remember being in San Francisco with her to photograph a fancy wedding (I had been working with her for 2 years or so at this point) and we were there a day early and we had our cameras and were just doing some street photography. We got on a bus and I started a conversation with this random guy and he asked, “so are you a professional photographer?” I was going to say no, but I glanced over at Alex and she had this funny look on her face and she mouthed the word YES to me. So I turned to the guy and said “yeah, I’m a professional photographer.” That was the first time I had ever said that or really even thought that and it was definitely a turning point for me.
You are shooting with a Contax 645 now which is a film camera right? Film, digital. Can you talk a little about your philosophy here?
Of course, that is easy because it’s something I’m passionate about. I started with film. Taught myself photography on film, the old school way. I spent a lot of time in the dark room printing. Everything about film is really what made me fall in love with photography. Shooting with film makes everything I do with a camera very intentional, thought out. When I was learning photography, I used to carry this little book with me and I would take a picture and then write down all the settings (film, ISO, shutter speed, aperture, frame number) and then a week later, when the film came back I would sit with those images and study what I liked and didn’t like and why, so it
was a very slow and methodical and intentional process. The other great thing about film is the happy mistakes you end up loving, there is this sense of anticipation to see the image, a little bit like Christmas for each roll of film I shoot. Then came digital and things changed a bit, some for the better, some for the worse, things sped up, more instant gratification which is good and bad. Ultimately for me, they are both tools that do different thing at different times for me. I still shoot film because I love the way I think and feel when I’m shooting it, it makes me feel like I am truly crafting something beautiful. Stalking the right moment, planning the perfect composition, holding your breathe right before the shutter is released. The whole process just makes me happy and slows me down to hopefully make images in a similar way digitally. But going back to film, I love the beauty of the unexpected, the anticipation, the intentionality of making a photograph you can’t immediately see…it all just feeds me artistically, so I’m moving back in that direction some.
You use photoshop, but it doesn’t’ look like it?
I started with film, I spent hours and hours in the dark room printing black and white images so I guess that really influences how I use photoshop or Lightroom. I mostly do “dodging and burning” to enhance and highlight what is important in the image. My goal for digital photos is to make them look like the film I shoot. I like neutral skin tones with a little warmth to them. When editing photos, I am always referring to my editing wall. My editing wall is really just a bunch of tear sheets from magazine and prints that I’ve made, images where the color is just so or the light is a certain way, it is a giant collage on the wall. It is just there and helps me stay consistent.
You like the usual suspects. Weber. Testino. Avedon. But is there some photographer not on the radar that you like?
I recently found Salva Lopez, a photographer in Spain and his work is so beautiful. It’s thought provoking, but subtle and just beautifully made. His work inspires me: www.salvalopez.com
The stormy sky with rainbow in Montana at the ranch happened right in the middle of salads. But the bride and groom ran out for photos during salads! Yeah, a wedding is a crazy balance (especially for those who truly value photography). I try to educate people early that I’m going to do what it takes to make really great imagery and if that means interrupting your salads because the most amazing sky and light and rainbow you’ve ever seen is occurring right outside, than I’m going to do that, you know? But the delicate balance is that if I am intrusive or if people know I am there at certain times, than real moments don’t happen and images become contrived…so I try not to be seen, but I’m okay with pulling you away from a salad.
Where is the best place to eat in Westport, CT, Aspen, CO, Bozeman, MT, New York City?
I don’t really love to eat and the food has to be amazing for me to notice, so I tend to pick a restaurant based on its location or uniqueness. In Westport there is a restaurant under the Patagonia store called Manolo’s that has really amazing food, I love breakfast at the Wienerstube in Aspen and Blue Moon Bakery in Bozeman. My favorite though is a late night cheese burger at the Burger Joint inside Le Parker Meridien Hotel…it’s just a unique experience. It’s on 56th st between 6th and 7th ave. if you want to try it. My clients and good friends Nancy and Jason took me there once and I’ve been in love ever since.
What was the last pair of shoes you bought?
A sweet pair of El Naturalista boots. By far my favorite pair of shoes.
What is your favorite art museum?
MOMA in New York but a close second would be the Guggenheim in Venice, Italy
Where do you like to stay in New York?
You know I love anyplace there are interesting people and lots of life. A couple places that stand out are The James Hotel in SOHO, Empire Hotel on the upper west side, any of the W Hotels really, The Standard and of course The Plaza. Ultimately though for any destination wedding I like to stay where my clients are staying. It just makes it easier to get a sense of their style, and who they are as a couple.
Best place to eat in Boulder. Los Angeles. Napa Valley.
In Boulder it is definitely The Kitchen, In L.A. It would be In-N-Out Burger (there’s starting to be theme here) and in St. Helena there is a great deli called Giugni’s that i love.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
I really love the people and the relationships I am able to foster, that is definitely the best part for me.
How did you propose to your wife?
It’s a long story, but I spent a solid 6 months convincing her I just wasn’t ready to get married, which in hindsight wasn’t very smart, but I wanted her to be surprised. So on Christmas Eve, I started by having our favorite restaurant (Citron in Redlands, CA) pack us a picnic which we ate at a spot that overlooked the city. I than drove her to the airport where I had by good buddy Shaun Lunt waiting with a plane. He flew us up to the Big Bear
airport, we saw the sunset from the plane. I had a car waiting at the airport and I drove us out into the forest. I parked at this “random” spot and said let’s go for a walk. We hiked about a quarter mile into the woods and came out onto this meadow by the lake where I had a Christmas Tree lighted (and powered by a car battery) and a small fire to warm us. I also had arranged for another little dessert picnic with hot chocolate and treats. The best part in my mind is that I had purchased a photograph from a antique store on our second date…it was an old photo of a couple in their 70s kissing..this really passionate kiss. I had purchased this photo on that second date where I remember thinking “she’s the one” and so I bought this photo and just kept it hidden away. Anyhow, I had it matted and framed and wrote the word “passion” on the matte. So I gave her this framed photograph wrapped up as a Christmas gift and while she was opening it, I got down on one knee with the ring and she said yes…then we made out. Ha!!
What is your favorite place to take your sons?
Outside. I love to watch them playing in the dirt, on the rocks, in the forest. I also take them to Gunther Toody’s for breakfast. It’s this 50s diner with motorcycles and cars all over the walls. Some Sunday mornings I take them there and have pan cakes and mommy get’s to sleep in. I hope that becomes a deep rooted memory for them. Pancakes with daddy at Gunther Toody’s
Talk to me about your friend Shaun’s website.
Shaun was not just my best friend he was simply an amazing person. He was a brilliant adventurer, photographer and physician (in that order). He was on of my closest and dearest friends. He was killed flying his super-cub in Alaska while making photographs for his online journal DUE UP (http://shaunlunt.typepad.com/). I am in the process of publishing his photographs in a book, which will be available soon. I miss him and his adventurous spirit everyday. Knowing him has definitely made me live more in the present everyday; to constantly live life the way he did.
What would you say is most important to you?
I grew up in a family where family was emphasized by spending time together. So definitely, my family is my number one priority. My amazing and supportive wife Charlene and our two boys Ian and Shaun (and number three on the way) are unquestionably where I want to put the majority of my time, energy and love. They are a blessing everyday and everything else pales in comparison.
Getting back to photography a bit. There are so many quotable quotes about photography but is there one quote that sticks with you?
Definitely. Because it’s something I’ve struggled to understand in my own work, with my own cameras, there is this quote from a book called On Photography, by Susan Sontag. She says “…the very question of whether photography is or is not an art is essentially a misleading one. Although photography generates works that can be called
art – it requires subjectivity, it can lie, it gives aesthetic pleasure — photography is not, to begin with, an art form at all. Like language, it is a medium in which works of art (among other things) are made. Out of language, one can make scientific discourse, bureaucratic memoranda, love letters, grocery lists, and Balzac’s Paris. Out of photography, one can make passport pictures, weather photographs, X-rays, wedding pictures, and Atget’s Paris.” So it’s this constant struggle and it’s why I keep talking about being intentional, because a wedding photograph can be a snap shot, a historical document or if I am really intentional, it can be a work of art.
You seem to be moving towards a film face-to-face contact instead of this virtual over stylized social networking.
Like letters instead of emails film. Chainsaws instead of lasers. Ha! You definitely have a way with words. I guess what I’m realizing is that we are so inundated with information; phone calls, texts, tweets, IM, facebook, etc. We also see so much imagery on a daily basis and I just think we are all becoming a bit numb to it all. So I guess I’m trying to move more towards chainsaws (as you put it). I want to move away from too many photos, I want to give imagery that is alive with beauty, simplicity and context. I want to give people prints instead of digital files, I want to put art into peoples hands. That is what is important to me.
Any immediate plans for personal projects?
I’m currently doing research for two different projects. Both are portrait projects. One involves people over 70 who are still golfing, the other will be making portraits of hunters in Colorado and Wyoming.